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American companies are running out of places to stash their insane pile of cash

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

American companies have a very good problem. They’ve got nowhere to put all their money.

Consider that US nonfinancial corporations had just shy of $2 trillion in cash socked away at the end of the fourth quarter. (A fair bit of that money is stashed in overseas accounts that likely won’t come home any time soon due to tax reasons, but still.)

The mountain of cash has grown even as companies have invested heavily in their businesses. Capital expenditures among S&P 500 companies rose 10.3% in the fourth quarter, to a record $192 billion, according to a preliminary analysis by S&P. That’s up more than 17% from the fourth quarter of 2013.

Oh, and they’ve also been devouring their own stock voraciously. Over the twelve months that ended in Dec. 2014, S&P 500 companies bought back some $565 billion in stock, up 18% from the prior year, according to FactSet. (Roughly $57 billion of that was Apple buying its stock back.) Companies are notoriously bad at timing when they should buy their own stock. With the S&P hovering near all-time highs, it’s fair to assume that nobody’s getting a great bargain right now.

Of course, there is another place companies can invest: their people. Labor markets are showing signs of tightening at bit, which—all else equal—should improve the negotiating power of employees. And corporations can expect to get a general nudge from policy makers eager to see wages rise over the foreseeable future.

Politicians and policy makers around the world are eager to boost domestic demand and strengthen the economy, partly by getting companies to boost pay. In the US, there is strong, bipartisan public support for raising the minimum wage. Washington’s dysfunction may not allow that at the federal level, but states—both red and blue—have recently moved to raise minimum wages.

How effective these moves will be isn’t clear yet. There have been some high-profile announcements about big corporations’ plans to increase pay, Wal-mart being the most prominent, along with several other large retailers (paywall). Other large employers such as Starbucks and insurance giant Aetna have also announced large-scale pay increases.

Those are good signs, but these companies have a lot of ground to cover. After all, through February, year-over-year pay increases in the US were only a piddling 1.6%, far below what you’d expect with the economy steadily churning out more than 275,000 jobs a month, which the US has been doing on average over the last 12 months.

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